There was a recent article in Times Higher Education “Priced out: housing cost headaches for universities and staff” by David Matthews with an amazing but very simple idea to compare the purchasing power of academic salaries regarding a very important aspect of life – housing. Using the data on prices in major university cities across the world and data on annual faculty salaries he showed that purchasing power varies enormously and that a salary that could purchase a 60 meter apartment in Philadelphia would acquire only slightly more than 1 square meter (!) in Shanghai.
In a recent blog Alex Usher did the same exercise for Canadian cities. He found that even within one country academics working in different universities can afford housing of substantially different size – with variation from 80 to 14 square meters. Some academics are lucky to be able to buy a rather spacious apartment while others, because of lower salaries and higher housing prices in the cities where their university is located, are not.
We took data for Russia and did the same calculations using the same methodology—dividing annual faculty salary by the price of one square meter of housing in corresponding region. They show that the average faculty member in an average Russian region can afford only 7 square meters of housing (which places Russia close to New York and Paris in terms of apartment size). However, there is no such thing as average faculty or an average region so we decided to dig a bit further and looked into regional statistics. If we look at 80 Russian regions we can see the differences in what people in each region can afford. Indeed, faculty at universities located in Moscow and St-Petersburg, two Russian capitals and major university centers, can only afford 4 and 5 square meters of housing respectively. In Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk, important academic centers in the Siberian region, faculty can buy 8, 7 and 6 meters respectively. At the same time data show that the most spacious apartment can be bought by faculty who work either in the Far North or on Far East. In those regions, faculty can buy 10, 11 square meters or up to 13 in Magadan region. The only problem is that with very few exceptions there are no strong universities in these regions.
Let’s now take this further. One could suggest that many Russian families simply inherited housing that a previous generation received as a gift from Soviet authorities for free and that was subsequently privatized. These families have a place to live and therefore do not need to think about the cost of buying a flat or a house so can concentrate on academic work – even with insufficient support from their home university. However, even in these cases the university rarely cover expenses adequately that are critical for productive academic work. One such important expense is travel costs – for any academic it’s important to participate in international conferences to stay integrated into the global academic community. In many universities faculty have to cover these expenditures with their own private resources. So we decided to check the purchasing power of academic salaries measured in international travels. To do so we took as a proxy for travel expenses, the price for the return trip to Berlin. While this proxy is not completely accurate and underestimates real travel costs, using such a proxy gives an idea of “academic purchasing power” across the regions. It turns out that faculty in Moscow universities are the “richest” in this respect – indeed, salaries in Moscow are the highest in the country and Moscow allows for the cheapest travel to Western Europe. For faculty in outlying regions, traveling to Berlin requires first traveling to Moscow by bus, train or plane. For one month’s salary Moscovites can purchase as many as 5 return tickets to Berlin. Next to Moscow are Saint-Petersburg (2.8), Tumen region (3) and Khanty-Mansi Okrug Yugra (2.6) with the later two being important oil field regions with salaries close to the Moscow level. People in all other regions can afford only 2.2 or fewer. What about the Far North and Far East regions that can buy “relatively huge” apartments? For most, with one month’s salary they can only afford only one return ticket to Berlin. That definitely contributes to the fact that higher education institutions in these more remote regions remain intellectually isolated and lacking in academic quality.
So to improve the quality of regional higher education institutions and to retain bright people in academia, not only do salaries and infrastructure (including subsidized housing) need to be competitive, but also needed are resources that help academics from geographically remote institutions to stay integrated into global academic life and that requires funds to support travel, collaborative research, subscriptions to journal databases and access to empirical data crucial for research. Otherwise these isolated individuals might choose to spend their last university paycheck on a one way ticket to Moscow, Berlin or just to exit the university sector altogether.
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